Last month, the United Nations released a startling new report that warns of the growing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria: Infections from these “superbugs” could kill 10 million people worldwide every year by 2050. The report should serve as a wake-up call to state, federal and international leaders to the urgency surrounding this public health crisis.
Overusing antibiotics and antifungals leads to the breeding of pathogens that can resist our most powerful drugs when we most need them. A recent estimate suggests up to 162,000 Americans die from drug-resistant infections every year, making infections the third leading cause of death in the United States, surpassed only by heart disease and cancer.
If we lose effective antibiotics, our medical system will fundamentally change. The risk of infection would make cancer treatments, c-sections, and knee replacements much more dangerous, and a simple cut or scrape could be a death sentence.
It’s pretty simple, really. Antibiotics should be reserved for when they are needed most: sickness and surgery. They should not be used as a crutch for the industrial farming system.
But nearly two thirds of the medically important antibiotics sold in the United States are for use in animals. It’s business as usual for some meat and dairy producers to give the drugs to animals that aren’t sick to prevent disease in unsanitary, overcrowded and stressful living conditions. That overuse fuels the spread of drug-resistant bacteria that can leave the farm and potentially infect people with dangerous illness through human-to-animal contact, contaminated food and environmental factors like water run-off, dirt and airborne dust.
The Who's Who of public health groups have cautioned against using antibiotics in this way — including the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association and the Infectious Disease Society of America.
And industry is beginning to move away from this practice, demonstrating that it is both possible and an important step to protect public health. Many fast food chains have shifted away from chicken raised with routine antibiotics, which helped push producers to change. But the industry response is neither comprehensive nor moving at an adequate pace.
In 2016, Maryland-based Perdue Farms was the first major chicken producer in the U.S. to phase out routine antibiotic use when raising its chickens. Tyson Foods soon followed suit, and now more than half of the chicken industry in the United States, including all four of the country’s top chicken producers, have policies for reducing antibiotic use. In December McDonald’s committed to monitor and reduce medically important antibiotic use in its beef supply chain, a sign that the rest of the livestock industry may be next.
But in order to ensure a uniform and strong policy for antibiotics use on farms, it’s critical that government steps in. In 2017, Maryland passed a comprehensive law, the Keep Antibiotics Effective Act, to restrict the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. But the Maryland Department of Agriculture dragged its feet on implementation and ultimately enacted weak regulations in January of this year, despite concerns from legislators, health professionals, advocates and more than 1,000 public comments.
In response, and thanks to the leadership of state Sens. Paul Pinsky and Shirley Nathan-Pulliam and Del. Sara Love, the Maryland legislature reacted quickly and passed an updated and improved bill to ensure proper implementation of the law and to collect data from veterinarians regarding antibiotic use on farms. The bill, which did not get much attention because it passed with overwhelming support in the House and Senate, was a priority for many public health, consumer and environmental organizations, including Maryland PIRG.
We hope Gov. Larry Hogan will sign this new legislation. It is consistent with recommendations put forward by the World Health Organization to address the significant health threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria and will ensure Maryland farms are well positioned to meet the growing consumer demand for responsible antibiotic use.
We have to make a choice — allow industrial farms to continue overusing antibiotics as they have for decades or get routine antibiotic use out of our food system. The Maryland legislature has chosen, again, to preserve these drugs and protect public health. Governor Hogan should make the same choice.
Emily Scarr is the director of Maryland PIRG; Twitter: @emilyscarr, @marylandpirg.